Bryan Caplan  

Joseph Schmidt and the Tragedy of Discrimination

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This Thanksgiving, I'm grateful for Joseph Schmidt (1904-1942), my favorite new-to-me opera singer.  His music is wonderfully sweet (start here and here), and his life story a lesson to us all. 

Despite his voice, Schmidt had a problem that seemingly precluded a career in opera: he was really, really short - just 4'9''.  Contemporary audiences refused to take such a small man seriously. 

Schmidt could have just found another career and spent his nights singing the blues about heightism.  If he had, we never would have heard about him.  Fortunately, he sought and found constructive ways to overcome the consumer-on-worker discrimination that was holding him back.

The general market solution to consumer-on-worker discrimination is simply to distance the consumer from the object of his distaste.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The specific market solution was technology.  Radio and recording were obvious solutions: if consumers don't see you, they can't easily discriminate against you.  Yet Schmidt also did well in movies: a decent camera man can easily hide an actor's height from the audience. 

The result: 4'9'' Schmidt became a world famous opera singer who virtually never sang at the opera.  Market forces did not preclude discrimination, but they heavily diluted its effect on his career.

Sadly, though, there were no comparable forces protecting Schmidt from political discrimination.  The rise of Nazism put Schmidt, a German-speaking Jew, in mortal danger.  He fled to France, tried and failed to make it to the U.S., then escaped to Switzerland.  The Swiss "interned" (i.e. imprisoned) him in a nasty refugee camp, where he died of a heart attack at the age of 38.

As every opera fan knows, life is full of tragedy.  Sometimes people laugh at you for being short.  Sometimes people hate you for being a Jew.  Tragedy, however, is more than a matter of intentions.  Markets muffle the effects of bad intentions.  Governments amplify the effects of bad intentions to their logical conclusion.  Market discrimination gave Joseph Schmidt an ugly hurdle to overcome - but with some ingenuity, he overcome it.  Government discrimination, in contrast, deliberately walled off his every option.  He tried to escape, but there was no escape.  Governments driven by prejudice stripped Joseph Schmidt of his livelihood, then took his life.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Ted Levy writes:

Simply beautiful...

daubery writes:

To be fair I am not clear why living in a refugee camp would induce a heart attack. Can that really be ascribed to the actions of the state?

Tk writes:

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Greg Webb writes:

"To be fair I am not clear why living in a refugee camp would induce a heart attack. Can that really be ascribed to the actions of the state?"

Would Joseph Schmidt have had a heart attack and died had he been living as he had before in his home without worry that thugs from the Nazi State were not actively trying to murder him? Perhaps. But, he would have been more comfortable, happier, less stressed, and had better access to medical care had the murderous Nazi State not forced him to flee for his life, confiscated his possessions that he could not take with him, and caused him unnecessarily to live in less comfortable conditions in a refugee camp where he could not provide for his own medical care. It is reasonable to conclude that the Nazi State was responsible for his death. You aren't being "fair" questioning the Nazi State's key role in Mr. Schmidt's untimely death.

Joel Wittenauer writes:
To be fair I am not clear why living in a refugee camp would induce a heart attack. Can that really be ascribed to the actions of the state?

I am no doctor, but malnutrition and lack of adequate healthcare during his internment were, most-likely, leading causes of his death from a heart attack.

daubery writes:

"I am no doctor, but malnutrition and lack of adequate healthcare during his internment were, most-likely, leading causes of his death from a heart attack."

Well thanks for clarifying you're not a doctor at least! Malnutrition doesn't induce heart attacks, rather the opposite. That is why there are lots of heart attacks in the US, and few in Ethiopia. I furthermore do not know whether Swiss internees were malnourished or not.

Heart attacks are basically caused by three things: age, genetics, and lifestyle. Almost all of the lifestyle factors are helped by being in a camp: overeating, over-smoking, not exercising, etc. So I think you would be hard pressed to draw a causal link here.

Not that I mean to nitpick, it's just that if the story were "And so he stayed in a camp in Switzerland for a few years before returning to allied-occupied Germany to resume his career.", the story doesn't seem that bad in either case. Somewhat significant inconvenience that is ultimately worked around.

Costard writes:

Nice post, thank you Bryan.

Charlie writes:

It does seem like Bryan went out of his way to demonize the Swiss. I followed the link to "internment" back to its wikipedia page, because I wanted to read more about these Swiss camps and their poor conditions. Turns out, the Swiss camps aren't included in the Internment page at all, since it was a refugee camp and not an Interment/Concentration Camp.

After a little googling, it seems, perhaps, that these camps were not so bad. Certainly, the greater sin was those seeking refuge that the Swiss turned away, than those that ended up in refugee camps.

I suppose it complicates the moral message (markets good/ government evil) to tell the more accurate version. That is, through tax dollars and government bureaucracy that the Swiss provided refuge for people fleeing Nazi Germany.

kebko writes:

Is it accurate to call the reaction of the opera market discrimination? It is, in the broader sense of the word. I can't get my picture on the cover of GQ. Are they discriminating against me because I'm ugly? Where do we draw the line between skill & innate characteristics? And does it matter where the line is?
If I find that people I work well with tend to be women, and so I tend to hire them, am I discriminating against men?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bryan,
From what I understand, I would not blame the Swiss government too much. My uncle Fred, a Canadian civilian captured by the German government in the spring of 1941, escaped from a German prison camp in occupied France in, I believe, 1944. He and a prisoner from Holland escaped into Switzerland. When my uncle told me that he had been held in Switzerland until the war ended, I looked surprised, but he explained that, according to his understanding, doing that was a condition of neutrality.

Ken B writes:

DRH and his uncle are correct.

Pamela Gordon writes:

Daubery seems to be missing the point all around in this poignant and sad story of an artist who was taken from his public admirers too soon. That people have to explain the trials and tribulations of a refugee camp to him is pathetic. Let's not waste any more time on it.

I, for one, was fascinated to learn of this singer of whom I'd never known. Thank you Mr. Caplan!

daubery writes:

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Anna writes:

Talking about "demonizing the Swiss": I'm a big fan of Joseph Schmidt, and while combing through digital libraries around the world researching his life, I stumbled upon an article in a Swiss newspaper which revealed evidence about harsh realities of life in Swiss camps for illegal residents. According to some inmates, the living conditions were "not much better than in a concentration camp", Jews were "treated abominably" and they were forced to do free labour and threatened with deportation back to the Nazis if refused.
Unfortunately, I don't remember neither the name of the paper nor the date of the issue as I only kept the article for my personal collection, but here is the scan (in Italian): http://photoload.ru/data/78/e6/e5/78e6e562f3f983629daa0e8626e5a361.jpg
That said, Joseph Schmidt had lived several years before his death under an enormous amount of stress, mostly penniless and cornered further and further until he had virtually nowhere to go. Of course this must have taken its toll.

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